R.I.P. Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury—the prolific author whose famous works such as Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Something Wicked This Way Comes established him as one of the most influential and reliably imaginative crafters of fantasy in 20th-century literature—has died, according to a report on the sci-fi-minded website io9. Bradbury was 91, a long life made even longer by Bradbury's endless childlike capacity for wonder, the undying spark of his prose, and the unquenchable eagerness for storytelling that he used to entertain so many generations. As the statement from Bradbury's grandson, Danny Karapetian, reads, "His legacy lives on in his monumental body of books, film, television and theater, but more importantly, in the minds and hearts of anyone who read him, because to read him was to know him. He was the biggest kid I know."
Though often classified as a science-fiction author, Bradbury—as he so often did with other people's interpretations of his work—tended to disagree. According to him, the only one of his novels that could properly be labeled "science-fiction" was Fahrenheit 451, based as it was in hard facts like the exact burning temperature of books and the rapidly spreading, imagination-sapping power of television, something Bradbury painted as every bit as insidious as the threat of nuclear annihilation. That basis in the real (and really depressing) has made Fahrenheit 451 an oft-referenced touchstone that only grows more vital with each passing year, as the spread of interactive social media, sensationalism, and factoid-based news continues to contribute to the anti-intellectual torpor that Bradbury warned against.
Bradbury's belief in the importance of that message—a belief he will literally take to the grave with him—made him so vehemently opposed to anything that might further the dystopic world he'd predicted that for years, he resisted allowing his own books to be released digitally. In interviews he would decry the Internet as "meaningless" and say caustically that e-books "smell like burned fuel," not wanting to have anything to do with yet another machine people could stare at. He finally relented late last year with, ironically, a digital version of Fahrenheit 451.
There was also some irony in Bradbury being identified by so many others as a futurist, despite his being so firmly enamored of the past—as in his consulting on the development of the American Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair and Epcot's Spaceship Earth, yet also refusing to drive a car or fly in an airplane. But of course, it was this juxtaposition of the wildly imaginative and the wistfully prosaic, the incredibly unreal happening to the very real that made his work so special. Bradbury was sometimes described as a "Midwest surrealist," writing grand speculative fiction where robots, aliens, and sea monsters commingled, yet always shot through with a down-to-earth sentimentality and wry humor that balanced his most far-flung flights of fancy and horrific twists. Many of his stories—including the gothic, allegorical fantasy Something Wicked This Way Comes and his autobiographical books Dandelion Wine and Farewell Summer—were grounded in a fictionalized version of Bradbury's own childhood home of Waukegan, Illinois, while nearly everything he wrote was colored by an amber-colored nostalgia for the small-town life he'd spent absorbing the works of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and (especially) Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Even arguably the most famous of his fantastical works, his "half-cousin to a novel" anthology The Martian Chronicles, literally takes off in the middle of a Midwestern small town, then imagines mankind's desperate attempts to flee a nuclear war-ravaged Earth and colonize Mars (one already populated by telepathic aliens) through the prism of man's quotidian desires to remake it in the familiar image of home, hot dog stands and all. (As one archaeologist character says bitterly, "We'll rip it up, rip the skin off, and change it to fit ourselves...We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things.") Despite this somewhat pessimistic appraisal, Bradbury was a huge supporter of the space program, believing deeply that exploring the reaches beyond our atmosphere were the first step toward our species' true immortality. It was little wonder that the night man first walked on the moon, Walter Cronkite turned to Ray Bradbury to help put its significance into words.
Though Bradbury had his own talent for capturing the most destructive aspects of man's nature—the greed of unchecked capitalism, the mutually assured destruction of tensions between superpowers, all the selfishness and shortsightedness that stands in the way of true happiness—his own appreciation for big, beautiful things was apparent in his prose, which was energetic and romantic, never flat nor cynical. Bradbury could weave a metaphor like few others, and crafted impressionistic descriptions of faraway planets, dark carnivals, spooky graveyards, and mysterious tattooed travelers that played on the same universal childhood dreams and fears that bred them, and lodged themselves just as firmly in the minds of the many young readers whose introduction to Bradbury was often their introduction to horror and fantasy. Even as Bradbury turned in his later years to writing semiautobiographical works set around the movie industry like Green Shadows, White Whale or the detective trilogy Death Is A Lonely Business, A Graveyard For Lunatics, and Let's Kill Constance, he would populate Tinseltown with the same bizarre, macabre characters and crepuscular ambiance, wrapping sunny L.A. in the strange, shadowy, and surreal.
The inability to recreate that ineffable atmosphere is why Bradbury's own works have so rarely been successfully translated to the screen: While he's fared well on television—particularly The Twilight Zone episode based on "I Sing The Body Electric" and the short stories Bradbury adapted himself for his own anthology TV series, The Ray Bradbury Theater—the film versions of his work have generally left something to be desired. It's true that 1953's It Came From Outer Space is generally regarded as a sci-fi classic, yet only the Disney-produced Something Wicked This Way Comes earned the author's full endorsement, with Francois Truffaut's 1966 film version of Fahrenheit 451 earning mixed reviews from just about everyone besides noted champion Martin Scorsese and lazy English teachers.
Strip away Bradbury's imaginative descriptions and reduce them to just their most salient plot points, after all, and you end up with something like the dull miniseries versions of The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles ("Just boring," Bradbury once sneered) or the recent A Sound Of Thunder (or worse, The Butterfly Effect). Not that this has dissuaded producers from trying: New film versions of The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, and From The Dust are currently in the works at various studios, and will no doubt be pursued even more doggedly now. But even if these also fail (or, just as likely, never get made), Bradbury ultimately has had a large impact on movies, just as he has all modern storytelling: Like those heroes he worshiped in the libraries where he made his home for so many years, Bradbury took the stuff of pulp fiction—monsters, Martians, macabre haunted houses—and transformed them into literature that explored some of society's darkest ills and man's deepest terrors, everything from racism, colonialism, and the loss of liberty, to fears of death, abandonment, and insignificance, thus paving the way for countless successors to plumb the same depths in their own fantastical works.
In his short story "The Picasso Summer," Bradbury wrote of a man who rushes to watch the famous painter produce a series of drawings on the beach, only to be overcome by anxiety and sadness once he realizes the tide will wash those masterpieces away, never to be seen again. It's an allegory for living in the moment, for appreciating the wonder of life while you still have it—a common theme in both Bradbury's writing and the many moving speeches he gave over the years—and though, in the story, Picasso surrenders his work to the inevitable with a smile, it's hard to not draw some parallels between the narrator's fears and the fears of any artist over what will become of his work. Bradbury, after all, was partly inspired to write by his encounter with a traveling carnival performer—who jolted Bradbury's young body with an electrical current and proclaimed, "Live forever!"—prompting Bradbury to spend the rest of his life immersed in magic, both as a practicing illusionist and by attempting to pull off the trick of living forever through his writing. Fortunately for him—and for anyone who reads—it's safe to say he succeeded.